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Originally published December 27, 2009 at 9:00 PM | Page modified December 30, 2009 at 10:56 PM

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Fanatomy | Part 2: History and devotion rule Husky Stadium

Huskies' football faithful are like a gigantic extended family whose members show their love in varying ways. They're the oldest, most tradition-rich fan base in Seattle sports. This is the second story in a series examining Seattle sports fans.

Seattle Times sports columnist

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If old Husky Stadium ever needs a publicist, Scott Liljedahl would make a clever candidate.

For 20 years, he has bathed in the game-day atmosphere. His routine includes waking up at 5 a.m. and driving 125 miles from Kelso to Seattle. Here's the crazy part, though: He abandoned his season tickets two years ago because he was frustrated with former University of Washington coach Tyrone Willingham, but he and his wife still take that long drive just to tailgate.

During the game, they remain outside the 72,500-seat stadium and listen on the radio or watch on a small portable television. Liljedahl can't get over the losing, but he can't stay away from his team.

"I've made lifelong friends there," Liljedahl said. "I would miss it if I completely left. Trust me, Husky Stadium during the fall, there's nothing like it. It's magical. There's something about an autumn day there, looking out at the lake. It's almost orgasmic."

His loyalty says much about the Huskies' football faithful. They're like a gigantic extended family whose members show their love in varying ways. They're the oldest, most tradition-rich fan base in Seattle sports. They don't just share an affection for their team; they treat the Huskies like a legacy, passing it down to each generation and protecting their history with incredible determination.

Right now, they're experiencing the frustration of a seven-season bowl drought, the longest in the Pac-10, a conference they used to dominate. They endured a winless 2008 season. But with new coach Steve Sarkisian bringing verve back to the program, they expect the bad times to end next season.

To those who believe Huskies fans are stuck in the past with a team that will never get back to greatness, these Dawgs bark loudly.

"Washington can become relevant again," said Kevin Hull, 40, of Port Orchard. "We believe it can be up there with Florida, Alabama and all the great teams again one day. Maybe it's false hope, but I don't think it's false hope. We've been there before. They let it burn down to the ground. Now, they have to rebuild it from the ashes."

They're a prideful group that should know its history. Fifty-eight percent of the school's season-ticket accounts have been active for at least 20 years, according to the university. Eight percent of those accounts are at least 50 years old.

Liljedahl walked away (sort of), but the Huskies have resilient followers. Evidence: After finishing 0-12 a year ago, 89 percent of the fans renewed their season tickets.

"This is a very sophisticated, very loyal fan base," athletic director Scott Woodward said. "I think it behaves more like a Big Ten fan base than a Pac-10 fan base. That's not to slight the rest of the Pac-10, but there are some bandwagon fans in the conference. We stay into it here. There aren't hordes of people jumping on and jumping off. They're committed."

Woodward emphasizes the sophistication of Huskies fans by using one of his favorite anecdotes: The crowd cheers just as hard for a third-down defensive stop as it does for a long touchdown pass.

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The Huskies have a unique situation. Their fans are young and old. Nearly 47 percent of fans surveyed by Scarborough Research are 45 or older. But that leaves 53 percent between 18 and 44. Season-ticket holders tilt toward being gray-haired, but there's still a nice, loud, stadium-rocking vibe on most game days.

With every crowd a mix of kids and parents, college students and retirees, casual fans and boosters, the challenge is to entertain all parties.

"It's something we weigh and balance on a daily basis as a staff," Woodward said. "Because of the diversity of age, we have to be mindful of what music we play, for instance. Do we have enough young music to get the students and athletes fired up? Do we use the band enough to satisfy the fans who enjoy that part of coming to games? It's a very fine balance."

Of course, the best entertainment is a winning team. Sarkisian improved the Huskies from winless to 5-7 in his first season, and his Year 2 received a boost recently when star quarterback Jake Locker decided to bypass the NFL draft and return for his senior season.

The Huskies will be expected to make their first bowl appearance since 2002. Still, they're 18 years removed from the dominant, undefeated team that shared the 1991 national title and gave fans a season they will never forget.

"I've been hearing about the Legend of '91 since I was little," said Alicia Miller, who was raised purple and graduated from Washington in March. "I'm a little jealous I didn't get to experience something like that in college. I'd say that's kind of frustrating for us, all those years as a student watching the team drag through the Tyrone Willingham era. I try to think about the years before that, even though I wasn't in school then, and remember the good stuff, like Marques Tuiasosopo and the 2001 Rose Bowl."

But her disappointing college experience hasn't affected her enthusiasm. For the Oregon game, Miller made a T-shirt that read "Duck Hunting" with the image of a Husky with a Duck hanging out of its mouth. She brought an arcade gun and breadcrumbs and pretended to shoot Ducks fans as they walked by. For the Washington State game, she simply made a sign that said "Give Pullman to Idaho."

"I hear Cougars fans saying we're arrogant, but we're just the more respected university," Miller said. "We're going to get back to our rightful place. I don't think we're delusional."

In a city often derided for its mediocre sports teams, the Huskies standard is a golden one. It seems that, no matter what the fans endure, the expectations never will be low.

"There are fans who can't remember their grandkids' names, but they remember every starter on that 1960 Husky team," said Russ Dille, a local sports historian. "Husky fans do a pretty good job maintaining their heritage."

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@

seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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